Author's Note: Hi everybody! This is my attempt at a new take on the "Sakura defects and joins the Akatsuki" plotline that we all know and love. There will be lots of plot, plenty of action, and an (eventually) strong Sakura. It will be ItaSaku, but it will take a long while to get there, and things will not be easy. We're going for plausibility, not love at first sight or instant attraction. This is not strictly a shipfic either; it takes some of the deeper themes of the Narutoverse and explores them further.

Being that this is fanfiction, some liberties have been taken with canon. It is generally compliant with the manga up to chapter 350, with the exception of Tobi, who is just Tobi, not you-know-who (no, not Voldemort. That's a fic for another time, I suppose...heh). There will be a few OCs because they are necessary for the plot, but they will not be obnoxious (promise!), nor overly-important in the long run.

Be forewarned: this fic will contain violence, character death, naughty language, some drinking (probably underaged), smut (not underaged), and fashion faux-paus. MA-rated chapters will be posted offsite to preserve the T rating, while the censored version will be posted here. Fear not! There will be links :D

I hope you enjoy!


Chapter One: Prelude

Sometimes we become the masks we wear

Sometimes we must shed them

"Another shochu, please."

The bartender raised a brow at her. That was her third one in the last half hour. His weathered face suggested that if she didn't slow down, someone was going to have to carry her out later. Judging by the thuggish appearance of the bar's patrons, they wouldn't be doing it out of the kindness of their hearts, either. But that was Mist village for you.

"Another," the kunoichi insisted. She needed it too; this kind of mission was tough for her to stomach when sober. It also paid the most, so her liver usually ended up taking one for the team.

"Suit yourself," the bartender growled, refilling the dirty glass.

The young woman downed it in three gulps and sighed. She glanced across the bar at her target once again. He was probably in his late thirties to mid-forties — on the youngish side for a target, and easier on the eyes than most, with thick brown hair just starting to gray at the temples in a distinguished kind of way. Her mission report stated he was from Cloud country, and you could tell; his face was a little too soft for Kirigakure. He looked out-of-place. She bit back the sympathetic thoughts. Don't be so naïve. He wouldn't be on a hit list if he was really all that nice to begin with.

She'd studied him long enough; she had a job to do.

Lowering her hood to expose her long blonde hair, the kunoichi shrugged out of her heavy cloak. She wore a low-cut top with matching red miniskirt. Completely impractical clothing for such a humid place, but she needed to look the part.

Ignoring the leers of the men beside her, the shinobi caught her target's eye across the room. She let her gaze linger for a moment before standing and weaving her way through the crowd over to him, not having to work too hard to exaggerate her drunkenness. She let a hand fall on his shoulder and leaned over, giving him a nice view down her shirt.

"Hey. This seat taken?" she breathed, indicating the empty chair next to him.

"Ah, no, feel free. Please," he gestured with one hand, adjusting his glasses.

She sank into the chair and crossed one leather boot casually over the other. "My name's Ino. You're not from around here, are you?"

He looked faintly surprised, then chuckled. "Was I so obvious? You're right, I'm just here for the week on business. I'm Hideki. It's nice to meet you, Ino-chan."

It was an obvious alias — his real name was Nobuhiro Usui — but she pretended to fall for it.

"Ooh, a tourist!" she gushed. "May I buy you another beer, Hideki-san?" She fingered the little packet of powder tucked discreetly into the waistband of her skirt.

"Uh, no thank you, that was my last one...I was actually on my way out," he admitted, rueful. "I'd be happy to buy you another round before I go though."

The young woman shook her head, letting her hair swish back and forth. "No thanks, I've had too much already," she giggled, switching tactics. "Do you have any plans for tonight?"

"I was actually supposed to meet someone soon..." he hedged.

"A girl?" Blue eyes peered up at him from beneath pale lashes.

Nobuhiro blushed. "Uh, no, nothing like that," he coughed. "Just a colleague...for business stuff."

The shinobi let her shoulders relax. "Oh good, then you can blow him off and hang out with me instead. I have a business transaction of my own that I'd like to propose...and I'm sure it's more fun than what you were planning..." she trailed off with a grin.

Nobuhiro's jaw fell open. It took him a moment to come to his senses. "Oh. Uh. Tempting as that sounds, I probably shouldn't. I'm new here and this village kind of has a reputation. I checked out of my room already, I wasn't even planning to push my luck by staying another night, you see..."

She bit her lip, frowning. "That's a shame. I don't often get to enjoy my job, but I was kinda looking forward to it this time." She let her gaze linger on his face for just the right amount of time.

His eyes widened. He stole a glance at her lips, then at her fingers, absently twisting the end of a lock of hair. He swallowed.

"Maybe I can make it worth your while? A generous discount for being so chivalrous...and cute," she added, cheek lifting in a smile.

That did the trick.

"Well, perhaps...yes, why not?..." he mumbled, eyes still fixed on her fingers.

"Wonderful!" she exclaimed, extending a slim wrist to allow him to help her up. Well that was easier than I expected. Either I'm more drunk than I thought, or I'm getting rather good at this.

"But not to your place. A public hotel," he amended firmly.

She just shrugged one shoulder at him. "Whatever you want. I know of a nice place near the edge of town, not far from here. Follow me."

She brushed her fingers against his arm on the way out.

The fog was dense, the air cool. She wished she hadn't accidentally left her cloak behind at the bar. It had been worth it though — this mission was turning out to be a cinch. Only a tourist would be stupid enough to trust a pretty girl in this town, no matter how young or what profession.

The kunoichi made sure to stumble a bit as they strolled down the empty, cobbled street together through the dimness (street lamps were a rarity in Kirigakure). The pointed heels of her boots echoed off the damp cobblestones. They both made small talk, each giving their own fake information, as she led the way to the edge of town.

She knew where she was going but had a brief attack of doubt. She'd used the same general area for her last two missions. The abandoned warehouses near the fishing wharf were convenient, but it was dangerous to use the same place more than once. The kunoichi supposed it didn't matter; she had lingered in Kiri too long anyway without making progress towards her goal. This would be her last mission here before she moved on.

"So, Ino-chan," Nobuhiro asked. "Where did you say you were from again?"

"Oh, here and there..." she answered evasively. "My line of work requires me to move around a lot, you know?" She giggled. It was actually true.

"There's really a hotel all the way out here? Are we close?" Nobuhiro eyed the dilapidated buildings and boarded-up windows, wringing his hands.

"It's a discreet place, good for business. Unfortunately the surrounding area is a dump. But don't worry! We can take a shortcut through here." She stopped in front of an alley between two warehouses. She knew of an unlocked side door she could shove him through quickly.

"I don't like the look of this place..." he trailed off, taking a step back. "Maybe this was a bad idea."

The kunoichi fought down her annoyance and plastered on a charming smile. "It's perfectly safe as long as you're here to protect me, right Hideki-san?"

Nobuhiro took another step back, glancing around. It wasn't going to work. She hated doing things out in the open even if no one was around (clients didn't like it), but it looked like she wouldn't have a choice. He was a runner if she ever saw one.

"Hideki-san?" She took a step towards him and tripped over a raised cobblestone, falling onto her front with a yelp. She pushed herself back into a sitting position and clutched her ankle. "Ow, dammit!" she swore, looking up at him from the ground.

"Are you okay?" He asked, taking a step forward. She slipped a hand discreetly down her boot.

"I don't know...what if it's broken? Can you come look at it? Please?" Nobuhiro edged closer, looking uncomfortable.

She struck. The kunai sliced through the fog and landed with deadly precision right between his eyes.

He disappeared in a puff of smoke.

The kunoichi had a quarter of a second to process the situation. She came to one conclusion.

Oh fuck!

The girl bolted. She dropped her henge and directed the extra chakra to her legs, increasing her speed. She flew across the river and bounded up the wall of a nearby building, leaping from tin rooftop to rooftop, long pink braid streaming out behind her.

The bunshin's presence indicated only one thing: the mission had been a trap. Sakura had stayed in Kiri too long and they had found her.

A senbon whizzed past her ear, slicing her cheek open. Sakura chanced a glimpse over her shoulder to find no less than six white-masked ninja hot on her trail. She leaped from the building back into the street, cut down an alley, smashed through a fence, and ran into...a dead end. Chakra gathered to her fist as she prepared to punch through the brick wall, but four bodies suddenly appeared in her path. Sakura could feel the other two ANBU behind her. She crouched in her stance, chakra flaring. She prayed that none of those masks belonged to people she knew.

"Haruno Sakura," spoke a voice. "By order of the Hokage, you are under arrest for treason against Konoha."

Not again, was the missing-nin's last thought before she charged.

A/N: Credit for the fic's image goes to NEIMANA (link to DA account in my profile, go check it out!), and credit to making this work 110% better goes to my beta, nagesagi (I love you man).

I welcome any and all feedback. Thanks for reading! :D